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The Cis White Gay Man at a Crossroads

Sometime over the past several years, my perception of myself and my place in the world changed.

 

I'd grown up a viciously bullied kid in 1980s Massachusetts. I was called a faggot on a daily basis years before I even knew I was gay. In high school, where I was just barely closeted, a typical day might involve being thrown in the trunk of a football player's car, driven out to the edge of town while "Born in the USA" blared from the radio, then left there to walk home five miles in bitter cold.

 

After a certain point, I didn't even question this kind of treatment. Massachusetts may be progressive now by national standards, but in the Reagan era, homophobia and bullying were not articulated social epidemics. Even certain school administrators and teachers told me to grow up and butch up.

 

I thought that withstanding such treatment and moving on to college, then New York, made me tough, a survivor. In fact, it did. It also fucked me up. I was in the throes of depression and addiction by my late twenties. I was HIV-positive by 30. In both recovery and therapy by 32.

 

Believe it or not, I also had fun in those New York years. Like many gay men, I'd typically dance the night away to the sound of black women wailing over a house track in a club, lyrics about being set free or taken higher or getting lifted up from the pressure. And this always felt like a very obvious match, this idea that gay men and black women were both oppressed and hence it made sense that gay men danced to the tracks of, and also fetishistically worshipped, black divas who sang us our pain and our desire for freedom. We were on par. As gay white men, we were one of many persecuted groups.

 

This was the '90s, mind you ― only 20 years ago. The idea of gay marriage, that we might wed and have kids and blend into mainstream society, still seemed absurd. Gay bashings, some fatal, were a daily reality nationwide. We had been decimated by AIDS for nearly two decades. The disease hung like a suffocating shadow of fear, stigma and decay over all of us, even those who weren't infected. We had no legal rights except for some anemic laws in a handful of cities and states. We had a president who sold us out at every turn for political capital, welshing on his military promise and, in the shameful dead of night, signing a law barring federal recognition of our civil unions.

 

All of which is to say, it wasn't folly that we felt like society's punching bags.

 

But, of course -- due in large part to our own activism, public anger and shrewd, well-resourced organizing -- things changed in the new millennium. Will and Grace. Same-sex marriage. While other members of the LGBTQ universe remained invisible, the adorable, stylish, witty professional urban gay white man became America's darling. Every straight girl wanted one of us for her very own. Even their boyfriends wanted us for fashion and interior advice, were jealous of the relative ease with which we could procure NSA sex. We rose to iconic public status in the image of Ian McKellen, Adam Lambert, Alan Cumming, Lance Bass, Clay Aiken, Neil Patrick Harris, Andy Cohen ― eventually even Anderson Cooper.

 

Somewhere in these years, I started to see myself differently. It wasn't just that I was no longer bullied, depressed and drug-addicted ― the very embodiment of the trauma-addled gay male statistic. And it wasn't just that I no longer felt as marginalized or unsafe as an urban gay man as I had in the '80s and '90s. Even though both of these things were very much true.

 

It was that, from about the murder of Trayvon Martin onward, and particularly when Eric Garner was choked to death by a cop in 2014 here in New York, I was shaken into a new consciousness about the fragility of black lives. I remembered walking alone in the wee hours in the '90s past groups of young black men, terrified that I would be gay-bashed, one of them stepping out abruptly toward me and yelling "Boo!" while the others cracked up laughing, as though they could smell my fear.

 

To suddenly think of such young men as not threats, but threatened ― mostly at the hands of cops ― to think of them as anxious and fearful, the worried voices of their parents in their heads, was mind-blowing.

 

I had also, like many, had little understanding in the '90s and early 2000s of what being transgender was. My best understanding of it was certain drag queens who had apparently chosen to live their whole lives in drag. But in the 2010s ― and particularly after the stunningly brutal death of Islan Nettles, again here in New York ― data emerged showing that black transgender women were being beaten and sometimes killed at rates that looked like what gay men were subjected to here in the city in the earliest, most phobic years of the AIDS epidemic.

 

All these things contributed to my own dramatic reinterpretation of my own societal status. Without discounting the genuine pain I had suffered because of homophobia, I was also now able to see clearly how my own privileges of race and class had ― often in subtle ways, such as via my social networks or even my own concepts of hope and possibility ― afforded me the resources to climb out of trauma and move forward.

 

And to that I would also add my privilege of maleness. Which is a difficult thing to add for any gay boy who was systematically bullied for being gay, because, often, we grew up feeling, not without warrant at the time, that we had less power and safety than the girls and women around us.

 

 

A STATUS SHIFT

 

But my own story is not just my story. It is the story of many gay white cisgender men in America now ― particularly those my age (48) and older who have lived through seismic changes in our status, even in our literal survival rates, thanks to the advent of effective HIV treatment and prevention pills.

 

Now, in the age of Trump, we find ourselves with a curious mixed status, particularly if we are blue-state, urban, well educated and well employed. (I have reported beforethat the situation can be markedly different for red-state, rural and working-class gay white men.)

 

"We're like the centaurs of the oppressed," says Peter Staley, the veteran HIV activist who, while secretly gay and HIV-positive in the 1980s, worked as a high-paying stockbroker until he finally left and came out to help found the pioneering activist group ACT UP. (He will publish a memoir.) "We're like half white men, with all the privileges thereof, and half an animal that many people worldwide would have no compunctions about shooting dead. We get into a problem when we point only to our unique horse part and ignore the white man part."

 

And he acknowledges that, for those of us of a certain age, that can be easy to do. "Look at the grief we've gone through, especially in the '80s and '90s with AIDS. Therefore, we feel that we're as oppressed as anyone and want to tell people not to wave their fingers at us and tell us to check our privilege. But that would be a mistake."

 

Pointing to himself, he notes that even the rage that fueled AIDS activism in the 1980s and '90s was driven by white male entitlement. "Many of us at the time were using some portion of the closet to protect ourselves and keep many of the privileges that straight white men had. Then we realized those privileges meant shit once the virus hit us and the government was just going to let us die. That was a shock to our privileged selves. We said, 'How dare you?' And traditionally oppressed groups may not have leapt immediately to 'How dare you?', some sense of shock that rocks their foundation."

 

LURED TO THE RIGHT

 

I don't feel alone in my reassessment of my place in the world in recent years. There are many middle-aged cis gay white men out there who see where they fit in a matrix of privilege and safety and are willing to not only ally with, but step aside for, less traditionally privileged quarters of the LGBTQ population.

 

For me, this has been, and continues to be, a truly mind- and heart-expanding exercise in listening and empathy, a chance to start with the premise that I don't know what lived experience is like for other LGBTQ people and to take them at their word when they tell me that the best role I can play in their struggles is to show up as a supporting ally, to continue confronting other cis gay white men on their prejudices or limitations, or often simply to keep listening.

 

Yet at the crossroads, some of us also find ourselves being enthusiastically asked to join forces with a sector of the population that historically has denied us rights, vilified us, used us as a political scapegoat: The Right.

 

As various groups around the country coalesce against Trumpism ― specifically its attacks on vulnerable populations including transgender people, Muslims, both documented and undocumented immigrants and the disabled ― many conservatives have realized they have new foot soldiers in the form of cisgender gay white men who share their hostility toward what they see as rampant illegal immigration, cultural pluralism and political correctness.

 

They've adopted as their gay free-speech darling the race-baiting provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, particularly after he was ostracized by much of the LGBTQ community for sparking racist digital mass attacks, complete with pictures of apes and death threats, against the black comic actress Leslie Jones and the biracial social-justice activist Shaun King.

 

How do cisgender gay white male Trump supporters, whose very existence baffles so many, form their identity? I've often wondered as much, so for this story I reached out to several via social networks. I've chosen to obscure their identities because my goal was not to spark a social media war against them, but to truly try to understand their thinking.

 

In our talks, there were common themes. One, shared with the broader world of Trumpers, was a conviction that the left's political correctness was killing free speech. Another was the idea that gay people and transgender people had nothing inherently in common ― "homosexuality is an attraction, transgender is an identity," is how one put it to me ― and shouldn't be in the same rights movement.

 

But the thing I heard the most from these men was that they weren't "victims" and they weren't "vulnerable." They said that the tendency of groups on the left, including LGBTQ people, to label themselves as such sickened them, and that they found Trump's willingness to "hurt the feelings" of such groups to be refreshing. (One said he thought Trump's much-reviled mocking of a disabled reporter during the campaign was "funny. It humanized him for me. He's the perfect antidote to this squeaky-clean, speech-obsessed culture.")

 

 

"NOT A VICTIM"

 

Yet what interested me most was how, in almost a split-screen image, these men situated themselves, uncomfortably, on both sides of victimhood and vulnerability. On the one hand, many of them nearly preened as they said that they in no way felt unsafe. "Not for one second," said one, a financially comfortable Manhattan lawyer, the one who enjoyed Trump's mocking of the reporter.

 

I asked if that was because he passed as a white man. (He has an ethnic background that could be called racially ambiguous, but he looks to me like what I call a white ethnic, which is what I consider myself, with my half-Irish, half-Arab ancestry.) "Of course that's going to be your response," he said. "And the answer is no. It's a consequence of my having balls and not caring what people think of me."

 

Had he, to his knowledge, ever experienced discrimination for being gay? "Not that I know of," he replied. "If anything, it's probably been social cachet."

 

Empirically, discrimination against gay people is not over. It is still technically legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in most states, and some states are challenging the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage equality. In a 2015 story I wrote, I was shocked by just how much anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination there seemed to be in just one state, Indiana. Polls still find that a majority of LGBTQ people have experienced violence, threats or harassment.

 

But it was important for the men I talked to to feel that homophobia was largely a thing of the past. "We're finally there today," said a 47-year-old white gay man in Atlanta who's had a successful, and somewhat public, career. He loves Trump mostly because "he's not talking bullshit like every other politician" and believes that "deep down, he's a good guy."

 

He continued: "We have gay marriage. I myself have had no issues [with discrimination] ever. The majority of corporations are highly concerned about diversity. So I don't believe it's an issue."

 

So, I asked, does he feel safe? "Don't get me started on safe," he replied. "It's a different day. I'm not a snowflake. I don't need a safe space. I'm not a victim. That's why I'm a conservative."

 

That was another theme that came up again and again, particularly from white gay men my age (48) and older. We had suffered, been kicked around, bullied, gone through the AIDS crisis, toughened up ― and had come out of it stronger. Why shouldn't other groups ― younger LGBTQ people of color, transgender people ― be subjected to the same test of character?

 

"I was an openly gay man in the '80s and I took a ton of shit from chefs in restaurants I worked in who called me a faggot and threw shit at me." I was told this by a successful Manhattan real estate agent, 51, who actually told me that voted for Bernie in the Democratic primaries and is pro-immigration and pro-choice but still considers himself highly conservative, mainly because he distrusts government and thinks that political correctness is "just shoving discrimination and hatred behind closed doors."

 

He says he went to a Milo Yiannopoulos "coming out conservative" party in New York over Pride Weekend 2018 and enjoyed himself despite not sharing the sentiment when the almost entirely white crowd began chanting "Build the wall!" (He has recently posted pictures of himself with Yiannopoulos at New York-area Republican events.)

 

He continued: "I had to put up with [bullying at work in the 1980s] because I needed the job. But now I have to deal with people getting upset because I used the wrong pronoun? I'm a tough person. For a lot of people, I was the first gay person they ever met, and I didn't judge them if they had a hard time with homosexuality at first."

 

His voice rose and quickened. "I'm certainly not going to be judged by some 24-year-old after what I've had to do to survive and the skills I've gotten. The fact that young people are now in a world where they're not forced to talk to someone in a MAGA hat doesn't make them right and me wrong."

 

The successful Atlanta man told me that only in his late thirties, after more than a decade of clubbing and partying and finally giving up alcohol and drugs, did he fully come into his identity as a pro-life Christian conservative. At one point, I asked his reaction to Trump's tweet, in July 2018, announcing that he would ban transgender people from the military.

 

"I started laughing," he replied. "It's hilarious that the gay community has to find a new issue [to be upset about] when they laughed at trans people when I was in my twenties. Now they add in the 'T' because it's the new victim."

 

Did he support transgender people serving openly in the military?

 

"You're not gonna put me in a gotcha game," he replied. "If this hurts feelings, well, I've been through a lot of pain. We all have." His voice then broke and he sounded as though he'd started to cry.

 

A CHOICE GOING FORWARD

 

At the heart of the new crossroads for the cisgender gay white man is the question of masculinity. The core of homophobia toward gay men in particular is misogyny, the idea that loving and desiring other men makes one less than a man, soft and vulnerable in the traditional cast of a woman. Historically, in the eyes of society, you are a bitch. Not hard and protuberant, but pliant, breachable. A pussy.

 

Certain cisgender gay white men, often those possessing or at least adjacent to some degree of money and power, have finally been invited into the circle of full manhood, recently identified as potential allies amid an urban, plural sector of the population seething against Trump and all that he represents. A sector, in fact, in full resistance mode against the shadow of unfettered, unashamed patriarchy and nativism embodied in Trump's ascent.

 

I remember, in high school, when, for some inexplicable reason, perhaps as the culture shifted slightly toward things that were more "indie," I suddenly became the darling of my longtime oppressors ― the very boys who for years had called me faggot near-daily and threw me in the trunk of the car. I completely embraced the invitation. It was irresistible, erotic even, this opportunity to be the pet of boys I had both feared and desired.

 

It's not surprising to me that fratty white MAGA boys, barking "Build the wall!" or "Lock her up!" in great, roving packs, have become the stuff of gay porn.

 

To ally oneself with power and privilege after historically having one's own inherent gender and racial privilege compromised because of one's sexuality is extremely seductive. It's also uncomfortable, to say the least, to know that your new bros are perpetuating cruelties that you know in your gut to be real because, especially if you are an older gay man, you remember such cruelties to the point that your voice rises and breaks when you allude to them.

 

It can be so uncomfortable that, in the next breath, you deny their authenticity. People who feel vulnerable and unsafe, you say, enjoy playing the victim. Your new status in the world depends on not connecting your own former, or fleeting, suffering to theirs.

 

Yet deep down, you have a cellular memory of being society's bitch. In the eighties, many of us loved Morrissey because he modeled how to openly desire other men while still being clever, resilient, funny ― that particular brand of gay "toughness" we cherish so much ― perhaps overcherish.

 

But Morrissey also sang: "It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate. It takes guts to be gentle and kind."

 

It takes guts, as well, to cede some of your own hard-won power in the service of others'. Society's bitches, even those who currently enjoy an illusion of safety, find their real power when they identify not away from, but in alliance with, all the other bitches.

 

Image via Getty

 


Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy is a Brooklyn-based longtime HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ journalist for New York magazine, The New York Times, The Nation, POZ, TheBody.com, them.us, Lambda Legal and other places. He is the author of the novel Christodora and a forthcoming novel from Grove Atlantic next year. He is a member of Gays Against Guns NYC and could happily watch the films Klute, The Eyes of Laura Mars and Cruising over and over again.